Future of bus system depends on permanent funding

Nearly half of Virgnia College's 650 students rely on CMRTA buses to get to and from classes.

Columbia, (WACH) - For years, Midlands leaders have debated how to pay for the struggling central midlands regional transit authority.

The system recently almost ran out of cash again until Columbia leaders kicked in $600,000 last month.

Now the clock is ticking before that money runs dry, and if the system fails local leaders say so does the local economy.

"We must have a working public transportation system to support our economic infrastructure,â?? said Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin.

A year-and-a-half after opening along Two Notch Road in Richland County, Virginia College now has 650 students, and nearly half of them rely on CMRTA buses to get to and from class.

College president Nick Foong got worried when CMRTA threatened to cut some of those routes.

"It's a concern not just for continuing our existing student base, but for future enrollment. This could affect the future viability of our campus."

In his state-of-the-city speech last month Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin promised not to let the cash strapped bus system fail, but it could happen if a dedicated funding source, such as a sales or property tax increase isn't passed soon.

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Richland County voters shot down a penny sales tax referendum for the buses in 2010.

CMRTA Transit Director Robert Schneider says he wouldn't be surprised to see that ballot initiative come up again.

â??If some type of referendum is passed, then much of the financial question doesnâ??t completely go away, but itâ??s certainly resolved, said Schneider, who was hired last year to help turn the bus system around.

â??Instead what were looking to is for cities and communities to simply say are there additional transportation needs we can meet for you.â??

Benjamin says he supports a penny tax proposal adding its everyoneâ??s responsibility to keep the bus system afloat because even if you've never used it you likely rely on someone who does.

â??If itâ??s the nurse or nurseâ??s aid, changing your familyâ??s bed pans at the hospital or if itâ??s the person serving you food at the restaurants.â??

The mayor says the wheels are in motion for a more efficient and profitable system citing two examples: A streamlined CMRTA board and the inclusion of local college presidents like Foong in transit talks.

â??The increased numbers of students help with federal funding; therefore it would bring significantly more of our tax dollars back into the system,â?? adds Benjamin.

Foong says most of his students are getting ready to enter the health care industry, a growing sector of South Carolinaâ??s economy, but for now heâ??s just worried about them making it to classes.

â??We really need to know that thereâ??s a longer term, if not a permanent solution to funding for our bus system.â??

The mayor has an ambitious long term plan for CMRTA, including adding hybrid buses, encouraging businesses to locate along transit lines and eventually connecting local routes with regional bus and rail service.